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Israel-Europe ties showing strains

NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM (JTA) — With Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu about to establish a new government, early signs of strain in Israel’s relations with Europe are showing.

The main sticking point seems to be the prime minister-designate’s refusal to explicitly reaffirm Israel’s support for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Widespread popular anger in Europe over Israel’s actions during the recent military operation in Gaza has not helped.

"Let me say very clearly that the way the European Union will relate with a government that is not committed to the two-state solution will be very, very different,” European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana warned after a meeting earlier this month with the Egyptian and Palestinian Authority foreign ministers in Brussels.

“They know it,” Solana said of the Israelis, “and we have to keep on saying that.”

But after Tuesday’s dramatic decision by the left-of-center Labor Party to join the Netanyahu government, the two-state issue could become less critical.

Labor leader Ehud Barak insisted that Netanyahu include two key points in the government guidelines: acceptance of all previous international agreements and a commitment to work for full regional peace. Both imply acceptance of the two-state formula.

Indeed, in his first public statement after Labor’s decision to join him, Netanyahu indicated a degree of flexibility. He not only called on the international community to invest in the Palestinian areas, but assured the Palestinians that in Israel they would find a partner for peace.

What actually happens on the Palestinian track could depend on the outcome of infighting in the Netanyahu government between Barak and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has been named foreign minister. Netanyahu already is talking about appointing the relatively dovish Silvan Shalom as a special roving ambassador — a move that could be construed as a ploy to circumvent the hard-line Lieberman.

Still, Israel is likely to face friction with Europe.

The appointment of the controversial Lieberman has raised a lot of diplomatic eyebrows and drawn persistent criticism from media outlets. In Europe, the media tend to portray Leiberman as a dangerous right-wing rabble-rouser. The French Le Figaro called him an "anti-diplomat"; the Munich-based Suddeutsche Zeitung described his party as "anti-Arab"; and the London Times quoted Lieberman critics who accuse him of being "an anti-Arab racist."

The looming PR problem for Israel stems from the potent mix of Lieberman in the Foreign Ministry and the strongly negative fallout from the Gaza operation in European public opinion.

Fortunately for Israel, there is a huge discrepancy between the way European governments perceived the fighting in Gaza and European public opinion.

In mid-January, the day after Israel declared a cease-fire in Gaza, six European leaders — France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Gordon Brown, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Spain’s Jose Louis Rodriguez Zapatero and the Czech Republic’s Mirik Topolanek — paid an unprecedented solidarity visit to Jerusalem.

They offered troops and technological assistance to prevent Hamas from smuggling new weapons into Gaza, Merkel declared that Israel had a right to live in peace and Sarkozy vowed that Europe would never do anything to harm Israel’s security.

The European governments generally accept the Israeli narrative on the Gaza war: It was legitimate self-defense against an Iranian-backed outpost of anti-Western jihadism. By contrast, the European media and public opinion sympathized more with the Palestinian narrative: that Israel used disproportionate force, causing the deaths of large numbers of innocent civilians.

The question now is, could a combination of fundamentally hostile European public opinion and a recalcitrant Israeli leadership have an effect on European leaders?

Britain offers the first sign. Last week, British officials informed outgoing Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that their government would not be keeping its promise to change laws that allow private British citizens to arrest visiting Israeli army officers on war crimes charges. In an unofficial message to Livni, British diplomats suggested that because of the harm to Israel’s public image in the wake of the Gaza war, the government would not be able to pass the amendment to the legislation before next year’s scheduled election.

In other words, given the current public climate in Britain, pro-Israeli legislation could cost the governing Labor Party several seats.

As it stands, British law permits private citizens to press charges against anyone for war crimes anywhere. Successive British governments promised a significant amendment: Anyone wishing to press charges first would have to get the approval of the chief prosecutor. Now, in the face of widespread anti-Israel sentiment, the British government seems to be backtracking.

Britain also has taken the lead in Europe in expressing readiness for dialogue with the "political wing" of Hezbollah. Until now, Europe and the United States have boycotted the Lebanon-based Shiite militia group on the grounds that it is a terrorist organization. The British initiative could pave the way for similar dialogue with Hamas and the dropping of the current EU demand that Hamas first recognize Israel.

Most worrying for Israel, however, are moves in Britain to boycott Israeli goods. The British government itself is encouraging the boycott of Israeli goods that originate in the West Bank by insisting that they be labeled "Made in the West Bank." Israeli diplomats in London fear this could spread to a boycott of all Israeli goods.

Israel’s position in Europe is further exacerbated by the presence of large Muslim populations in countries such as Britain, France, Spain and Sweden, where Muslim activists have initiated violent protests.

In France this week, dozens of supporters of the pro-Palestinian Euro-Palestine Party descended on supermarkets in the Paris area and forcibly removed Israeli goods from shelves, calling for a boycott. Last month in Malmo, Sweden, Israel was forced to play a Davis Cup tennis match in an empty stadium because of Muslim threats against Israeli players. And in Spain, Israeli basketball players were harassed.

If relations with European governments decline, Israel stands to lose a great deal.

Last year, in recognition of Israel’s 60th anniversary, ties with Europe were upgraded in several fields, including trade, science, environment, youth, academia, participation in European plans and agencies, and possible full integration into a European single market. Israel also has a strategic dialogue with the EU, participates in European research and development programs, and holds a high-level business dialogue with Europe.

Most important, Europe is Israel’s biggest trading partner, with an annual volume of $36.7 billion in 2007, compared with $33.8 billion in trade with the United States that year.

Clearly concerned about the growing danger of isolation in Europe and elsewhere, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a potshot at Barak for joining the Netanyahu government.

"History will not forgive" anyone who joins a government that leads to Israel’s isolation, Olmert declared. That, however, anticipates an outcome that has yet to be determined.

Only time will tell whether Labor’s decision to join the Netanyahu government complicated Israel’s difficult situation overseas or, on the contrary, helped turn it around.

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